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Okowa’s Atiku Burden: PDP presidential running mate faces Obi challenge in southern Nigeria

'Igbo voters'll back Obi, dump PDP in 2023'

‘Okowa has always identify self as Igbo’


Akani Alaka writes on the challenges and values expected to be delivered to efforts of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP to return to power in 2023 by Delta Governor, Ifeanyi Okowa who was announced as the running mate to Atiku Abubakar, the party’s presidential candidate last week.


The fact that some members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) were still bitter about the emergence of Delta State Governor, Ifeanyi Okowa as running mate to Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the party’s presidential candidate for the 2023 election was evident as the results of last Saturday’s Ekiti governorship election began trickling in.

With the results showing Bisi Kolawole, the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP trailing his opponent, Oyebanji of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC),  supporters of Governor Nyesom Wike who lost the vice-presidential slot to Okowa took to social media to mock their party.

Wike, according to his supporters, would have been directly involved and ensured that the party put up a more credible performance at the election if he had not been shabbily treated by the Iyorcha Ayu-led leadership of the National Working Committee (NWC) of PDP.

The Rivers State Governor had himself not spoken about the preference of Okowa to him by the presidential candidate of PDP as of the time of writing this story.

But his supporters, who think he should have been made a part of the presidential ticket of PDP have been crying foul.

The supporters of the Rivers State Governor had argued that he deserved the position because of his contributions to the sustenance of PDP since 2015 and as the runner-up in the presidential primary of PDP.

They also claimed that the Rivers State governor was the clear preference of a committee set up by the party to screen possible running mate for the presidential candidate of the party.

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Such views are arguably based on viral reports that the Vice Presidential Candidate Screening Committee set up by the PDP NWC had voted overwhelmingly in support of Wike a day before the announcement of Okowa.

Indeed, the report had indicated that the Chief Tom Ikimi-led Committee voted 16 – 3 in favour of Wike.

Why I Choose Okowa

But PDP swiftly denied the report, insisting that the final decision on the running mate will be made by the presidential candidate. Eventually, Atiku announced Okowa as his choice last Thursday.

The former Vice President said he held wide consultations with various stakeholders in the PDP including our governors, national working committee, board of trustees, and other leaders to seek their input and their wisdom before arriving at his choice.

He also said he had during the consultations indicated that his running mate must have the potential to succeed him at a moment’s notice as well as appreciate challenges facing the country.

He added that his running mate must also be someone who is not afraid to speak his mind and give honest advice as he goes about reversing the destructive impact of the APC government if he is elected.

Consequently, Atiku said he opted for the Delta governor because he meets “all or most of the qualities” he had enumerated.

“Accordingly, let me state that the person I have chosen as my running mate possesses all those identified qualities. He personifies not only the seriousness the current moment represents for our country but also the future that our young people yearn for and deserve.

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“He is a serving state governor who has demonstrated, in his state and through his conduct, that governance is about service to the people. I know that he will not only add excitement to our already energized ticket and campaign but will also help to bring focus, discipline and stability to our government, come 2023,” the former vice president said.

Sour Grapes

While some supporters of Wike had blamed Ayu for the failure of their man to clinch the vice president slot, the PDP Chairman had defended himself. He insisted that three names were presented to Atiku, based on the recommendation of the screening committee and the presidential candidate was allowed to make the final choice.

But some party members were not convinced. For instance, a former spokesperson of the PDP Presidential Campaign Council, Kassim Afegbua alleged on a television programme that the decision to make Okowa the vice-presidential candidate of the party was taken solely by Ayu. According to him, the Rivers State governor was the obvious choice by most stakeholders in the party.

“The party in its wisdom set up a panel of about 19. They took representatives from the Governors’ Forum, National Assembly, NEC, Board of Trustees, and the National Working Committee. And after all the deliberations, they put the issue into a vote and Wike got 16 votes, and Okowa got three votes. Now they didn’t stop there, they also formally wrote and gave the recommendation of that report to the candidate but the national chairman of the party has a different motive and I can tell you that he singlehandedly endorsed the issue of Okowa’s emerging,” Afegbua who has now indicated that he is leaving the PDP said.

Wike versus Okowa

However, critics of Wike pointed out that he had also said that he was not interested in being the vice president to anybody when he was contesting for the presidential ticket of PDP.

A video where the Rivers State governor emphatically stated that he would never accept to be the vice president to anybody was pushed out as the jostling for the position was going on. In addition, critics also pointed out that there is no love lost between the Wike and Atiku, given the way the governor poured expletives on the former vice president when he was campaigning for the PDP presidential ticket.

Wike had repeatedly accused Atiku of betraying the party by decamping to APC ahead of the 2015 election, arguing that his act of betrayal should not be rewarded with the presidential ticket of the opposition party.

Also, critics had pointed to the seeming authoritarian disposition of Rivers State governor as well as his combative nature as among the factors that worked against his emergence as the vice-presidential candidate of APC.

Wike was also seen as being too desperate for power. On the other hand, Okowa cultivated Atiku by getting the Delta State delegates to vote for him at the presidential primary of the party.

Okowa’s cool-headedness and calm disposition are in sharp contrast to Wike’s.

A Betrayal

However, the allegation of betrayal has trailed the emergence of Okowa as the running mate to Atiku. This was because the Delta State governor was host to governors from the Southern region of Nigeria when they declared that the 2023 presidential ticket of the two major political parties in Nigeria must be zoned to their part of the country.

The 17 governors of the Southern states in both parties met in Asaba, the capital of Delta State on May 11, 2021, where they agreed that based on the principles of fairness, equity and justice, the presidency should rotate to the South at the end of the statutory eight years of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure. Again, the governors met in Lagos on July 5, where they reaffirmed their decision, and again in Enugu on September 16.

Thus, after the presidential primary of PDP, Wike had accused Okowa and some of the governors from the South who directed delegates from their states to vote for Atiku, from Adamawa in Northeast Nigeria of betrayal of their region.

“Look at a region ganged up, then you, your own region, cannot gang up. You became tools to be used against the interest of your people, and you think you have won, you have lost.

“You will continue to be perpetual slaves. Rivers people you don’t need to bother yourselves. PDP needs us. If they say they don’t need us, they should wait,” Wike had said.

The allegation of betrayal was revved up again against Okowa after his announcement as a preference for the running mate slot of PDP by the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum, SMBLF.

The group which has been at the vanguard of the campaign of zoning of the 2023 presidential ticket of the political parties to the Southern Nigeria and specifically, the Southeast, in a statement by Chief Edwin Clark, for the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders’ Forum (SMBLF) and the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Chief Ayo Adebanjo, leader of Afenifere, Dr Dru Bitrus, the President-General, Middle Belt Forum and Prof. George Obiozor, the President-General, Ohaneze Ndigbo Worldwide described Governor Okowa as “a betrayal of the highest order” for accepting the vice president slot.

According to the statement, “It is unspeakable and quite disappointing that Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, who is currently Chairman of the South-South Governors’ Forum, and a native of Owa-Alero in Ika North-East Local Government Area (one of the Igbo-speaking areas) of Delta State, would exhibit such barefaced unreliability,” the group said while describing Okowa’s action as “treacherous and tantamount to a despicable pawning of the political future of the people of Southern Nigeria.”

But in a reply to the accusation, the Delta governor defended his action, noting that he belonged to a political party that agreed to throw the presidential ticket open as the best way to rescue the nation.

The governor, who said he would not join issues with any group on the issue, especially the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders’ Forum (SMBLF) said, “having agreed to that and also submitted myself to be a politician in the Peoples Democratic Party, I am ruled by the policies of the party as they are. And, since we have all agreed that we wanted to throw the presidential candidacy open and Atiku Abubakar emerged, the onus is for us to support him. We are not expecting that he would be the candidate from the North and also have a vice-presidential candidate from the North. That would be leading to further division.”

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Beyond this, Okowa had also said that he would add value to the presidential ticket of the PDP as he was acceptable to the structures of the party across the nation having been in the party since inception and grown through political ranks.

“I believe that a combination of all these will enable me to assist the presidential candidate of the party and the rest of the party leadership to be able to put up the right strategy for us to win the elections,” the governor explained. “I have a very clear understanding of the issues that have been put forth by our candidate and in terms of governance; I have been privileged to have started my politics at the grassroots. My being in the Senate exposed me to national politics and issues of national development and I have been relating well with my colleagues as a governor in the last seven years, discussing what is best for Nigeria. All of these exposures are a huge advantage, understanding grassroots and national politics and I think that will obviously enable me to add strength to the ticket,” he added.

Aside from the controversies, analysts have also been assessing the value that Okowa will bring to the PDP presidential ticket.

Loyalists of the Delta governor described him as a quiet, but strong and determined politician, citing the way he was able to upstage the former governor of the state, James Ibori, in the battle to determine the next Delta governor. Ibori had since he left office in 2007 played the role of godfather to the PDP in Delta State while installing his favourites, including Okowa as the governor of the state.

However, Okowa upstaged Ibori in the battle for selection of the party’s governorship flag bearer for 2023 with the emergence of his preferred Sherriff Oborevwori, the Speaker of the State House of Assembly as the governorship candidate of the PDP. Ibori had preferred former Commissioner of Finance in Delta, David Edevbie.

Some analysts said with this, Okowa had become the undisputed leader of PDP in Delta state. However, Okowa will now have the burden of helping the PDP to sustain its electoral dominance in the South-east and South-south geo-political zone where the party had recorded an overwhelming victory since 1999.

President Buhari won with 15,191,847 votes to defeat Atiku who secured 11,262,978 votes based on INEC results. Further analysis shows that Buhari won in 19 states while Atiku won in 17 states and Abuja. Atiku had also won overwhelmingly in all the South-south and the South-east states. Atiku had 2,233,232 from the South-south; 1,694,485 in the South-east and 1,257,457 from North-east, his own geopolitical zone.

Atiku also won in Oyo and Ondo states in the South-west with over 40 per cent of the votes in the other four states in the region. Thus, analysts said a significant portion of the about 11 million votes scored by Atiku in 2019 came from the South-south and South-east.

Peter Obi was the running mate of Atiku in 2019. However, the possibility of PDP repeating the 2019 feat in South-east, especially now looks very dim with the exit of Obi from the PDP.

Worse still, Obi is now the presidential candidate of the Labour Party (LP). Riding on the popular demand for the shifting of the presidency to the South-east in 2023 as well as general enthusiasm for change in the country by youths,

Obi is now attracting support capable of denying the PDP its usual huge votes from the South-east specifically and other parts of the South in general. The challenge, therefore, is for the PDP  to see how it can reduce the loss of votes to the Labour Party.

Also, with Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the presence of the former governor of Lagos on the presidential ballot, according to analyts will also be a big challenge to the PDP in the South-west.

For one, five of the six states in the region are already under the control of Tinubu’s party, the APC and the massive victory of the party in last Saturday’s, governorship election may be indicative of the direction of the region in 2023. PDP had also in the past relied on South-east indigenes living in Lagos and other South-west states for votes during electoral contests.

But the Igbo electorate in the South-west may not be available for the PDP in 2023, given the excitement being generated by the presence of the LP candidate on the presidential ballot among them.

The Igbo Card

The task of ensuring that Obi’s LP did not stop the ambition of the PDP to return to Aso Rock in 2023 will be the chief burden of Okowa.

Analysts said the fact that the Delta State governor has always identified as an Igbo man may make him acceptable to some parts of the South-east.

Therefore, Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worldwide, while congratulating Okowa on his emergence as the vice-presidential candidate of the PDP described the governor as “an Igbo prodigy; an astute administrator, sagacious politician, brilliant physician, creative visionary, prudent resource manager, detribalised patriot, purveyor of morals and a poster personality.

“The Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worldwide led by Ambassador Professor George Obiozor is very proud of you. We are optimistic that your candidacy will add enormous electoral value to your political party, the PDP,” Ohanaeze said.

In addition, Okowa does not carry the baggage of Wike, who had once in a viral video,  vehemently denied being an Igbo man.

Also, some from the South-east partly blamed Wike for the exit of Obi from the PDP. Wike had ridiculed Obi when he met PDP delegates in Anambra State early this year. During the meeting, Wike had told the party members that any vote for Obi who was then a presidential aspirant under the PDP, would just be a waste of efforts.

But will these be enough for Okowa for the big task of galvanizing support for Atiku in the South-south, South-east and South-west while minimizing damage to the electoral fortunes of the party by the LP and APC?

Not Just Okowa

It will certainly be a tough job for Okowa, but a PDP member told this newspaper last week that the task is not for the presidential running mate alone.

He noted that the PDP still has two sitting governors in the South and the other three states, strong and vibrant chapters who are working to deliver victory for the party in all the elections to be conducted in 2023.

He added that governors who are leaving office would be contesting for senatorial positions, while their loyalists would also be contesting for various positions. As such, they must be committed to working for the party not just because of Atiku, but for the realisation of their ambitions.

He also pointed out that the PDP is still in control of five of the six states of the South-south and the governors, including Wike, also have no choice but to vigorously work for the success of the party. In the South-west, he noted that the Muslim-Muslim ticket now being contemplated by the APC may work against the party in the presidential election and this may also help the PDP.

“Various Christian groups not just in the South, but also in the North are already cautioning APC against the Muslim-Muslim ticket gamble, even as they encouraged their members to get their voter card. But the APC seemed determined to go that route. We will also certainly benefit from the likely revolt against the party because of this, just like the Labour Party,” the PDP source said.

Whatever the permutations, PDP members will hope that the Atiku, Okowa ticket will deliver victory for the PDP in the 2023 election.